Yehuda Amichai was not a poet of a single major theme, and a variety of approaches to his work are open to the reader and critic. He was—perhaps above all—an autobiographical poet, yet it is also possible to consider him as a national poet whose personal concerns overlap those of his country. Amichai was one of the few poets of the late twentieth century who could be called genuinely popular, and it is important to consider the nature of his relationship to his audience. Other important features of Amichai’s poetry are the apparent effortlessness of his poems, with their agile, attractive speaking voice and complex tone; his use of conceits (his early poetry especially has been called Metaphysical) and his consistent success in finding striking, original metaphors; the rich variety of forms he tried, from quasi-Shakespearean sonnets to mock-heroic couplets and free verse; his emphasis on the concrete, palpable events of everyday life, as opposed to the abstract phraseology of ideologies and philosophers; and finally, his love poetry, the major theme of his work from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today Amichai is recognized as the author of a body of work that is extremely varied, rich, and inventive in form. One of Amichai’s most remarkable traits is that his poems have the ability to surprise.
Autobiographical nature of work
The autobiographical nature of Amichai’s poetry was the cause of some attacks on his work. Spontaneous reference to his own experiences characterized his entire oeuvre. The other, equally important, impulses are also present: the desire to describe what is real, immediate, and concrete and the need to reach out to his surroundings. In his second collection of poems, he wrote about his thirty-second birthday: “Thirty-two times I have put on the world/ and still it doesn’t fit me./ It weighs me down,/ unlike the coat that now takes the shape of my body.”
His references to himself were usually self-demeaning and rueful. He did not choose to present the “beautiful soul” held up for admiration by many contemporary American poets. The persona of his poems was always complex and viewed with levels of irony. Clearly there is no barrier between the speaker and his surroundings. Amichai’s self—his autobiography—proves to be remarkably synoptic and inclusive. Always he saw himself not as an individual, but as a human being against a rich, ambiguous backdrop of Hebrew history, European birth, and Israeli environment. Amichai described himself at home in Jerusalem in his poem “Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela”:
I’ve been patched togetherfrom many things, I’ve been gathered in different times,I’ve been assembled from spare parts, from disintegratingmaterials, from decomposing words. And already now,in the middle of my life, I’m beginning to return them gradually.
The speaker of such a passage is intimate, his mind agile and far-reaching, never confined. The critic Robert Alter has stressed that archaeology was always one of Amichai’s primary metaphors for his perception of the human condition; he saw both the individual self and history as an elaborate depositing of layers in which nothing is entirely buried from sight. There was also an uncanny overlapping between his own life and that of the country of Israel. He wrote in the poem titled “When I Was Young, the Whole Country Was Young”:
When I first fell in love, they proclaimedher independence, and when my hairfluttered in the breeze, so did her flags.When I fought in the war, she fought, when I got upshe got up too, and when I sankshe began to sink with me.
The combination of the two themes seems spontaneous and unstudied, always accompanied by humor, irony, and the special effortlessness that by the mid-1970’s had become one of the most distinctive features of Amichai’s poetry.
Mature style of the 1980’s
After 1980, Amichai fused the two themes to the point of self-parody. In “You Mustn’t Show Weakness” he wrote, “This is the way things stand now:/ if I pull out the stopper/ after pampering myself in the bath,/ I’m afraid that all of Jerusalem, and with it the whole world,/ will drain out into the huge darkness.” Although such a thought might have actually occurred to him while taking a bath, it is doubtful whether the passage could be called autobiographical; Amichai built a different, much more synoptic persona than the “I” of the earlier poems. This development is confirmed by a passage such as this: “If I’m a hedgehog, I’m a hedgehog in reverse,/ the spikes grow inward and stab./ And if I’m the prophet Ezekiel, I see/ in the Vision of the Chariot/ only the dung-spattered feet of oxen and the muddy wheels.”
After the 1980’s, it is no longer possible to speak of Amichai’s poetry as predominantly autobiographical. He had achieved an inclusive view of the world in which the speaker’s observations and his use of a first-person pronoun are strictly vehicles at the service of other concepts: of society and time, of reality, and of the world.
The reality of concrete experience
Looking back from the vantage point of Amichai’s mature style of the 1980’s, it is clear that he always appreciated the reality of concrete, individual experience, and of the personalities of other people. For example, some poems were excellent portraits of women, especially “You Are So Small and Slight in the Rain,” “The Sweet Breakdowns of Abigail,” and the devastating and sensual “A Bride Without a Dowry,” which ends:
And she’s got a will of iron insidethat soft, self-indulgent flesh.What a terrible bloodbathshe’s preparing for herself.What a Roman arena streaming with blood.
(The entire section is 2611 words.)